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World

Baghdad Dials Back Expectations For A Timeline On Mosul Offensive

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In Iraq, ISIS has become a common enemy. The campaign to defeat them has appeared to unite Iraq's different sectarian groups. But that unity is getting a major test as Iraqis prepare for what could be a defining battle, the battle to take Mosul back from ISIS. That's Iraq's second-largest city. Iraq's Shiite fighters are getting help from Iran, which has Sunnis asking for help from elsewhere, like the United States. If this frustration builds, it could be major trouble, as Sunnis are supposed to play a major role in Mosul. Here's NPR's Deborah Amos.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: At a small Iraqi training base just outside of Mosul, Hamid Yeha Taleb, a gray-haired Iraqi police general, says when the assault begins on Mosul, he wants his men to lead the way. About 500 men live in tents and trailers here. Taleb says he could recruit 5,000 but needs weapons and training. Why won't the Americans support us, Sunni Arabs from Mosul, he bitterly complains, especially now that Iran is supporting Iraq's Shiite militias with arms and advisers.

HAMID YEHA TALEB: (Through interpreter) Yes, sure, exactly, that is what we want. We want the American to do what the Iranian do.

AMOS: When the U.S. stepped into the fight against ISIS, it was on the condition that the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad create a national guard, so Sunnis could be armed and supplied by the central government and then recapture Sunni areas held by ISIS. But that legislation has stalled in Baghdad. Now Taleb hopes the Turks will step in. They've promised to train his men. But they haven't shown up yet. He's also waiting for a visit from the U.S. military.

TALEB: (Through interpreter) There is many promise, but at now, we didn't get anything. We people from Mosul, we want to liberate Mosul.

AMOS: As Taleb tours the camp, walking among the tents where his men eat lunch, he gets the call he's been waiting for.

TALEB: (Through interpreter) OK, there is American coming now. They are here.

AMOS: Five Americans in civilian clothes are waiting. They decline to answer our questions.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Sorry.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's not really our call to make. I mean, it's not our call.

AMOS: Later, General Taleb says they asked him what he needs but gave no firm commitments for what they might deliver. He believes U.S. delays in supporting a Sunni Arab force delays the battle for Mosul. Analyst Patrick Osgood agrees. He's based in Erbil with the Iraqi Oil Report.

PATRICK OSGOOD: And I think you could see a situation where Mosul is kind of simply left to rot over a period of several months or perhaps even a year or so.

AMOS: The Iraqi army is not yet up to the task, say U.S. officials. There's no Sunni force ready to lead the fight, much less govern this predominantly Sunni Arab city once ISIS is pushed out. Meanwhile, Baghdad has started to dial back expectations for a timeline on the Mosul offensive, says Osgood.

OSGOOD: It doesn't look very good to have the second-largest city in the country under ISIS control. But you simply don't have anyone willing to do it. And the consequences of failed campaign are probably quite large.

AMOS: For now, U.S. officials talk about a long run-up to the assault on Mosul, a strategy that includes airstrikes and cutting ISIS supply lines to weaken the militants until there's a force strong enough to confront them. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Erbil. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.